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Monday, 25 February 2019

Crispy Tofu Katsu Curry

Hot on the heels of the shop bought Wasabi dish - and because I just haven't shut up about how good it is compared to supermarket own-brands - my girlfriend decided to look into katsu curry sauce recipes. The original intention was that she'd cook something to accompany it but, the moment she mentioned it, I told her I was basically honour-bound to do it myself - partly because I've done so little cooking recently aside from the occasional Gousto boxes we've ordered.

In all honesty, this was probably a bit more advanced than I'm used to, and the instructions were a little vague (not great when my grasp of my own hob is still a little shaky) and weirdly presented, so I'm going to detail it all here in my usual style...

Kombu Dashi stock
  • 500ml water (approx. - a little more won't hurt)
  • Dashi Konbu dried kelp (1 section of approx. 10x10cm)
Preparation Time: About 30-45 minutes

Katsu Curry Sauce
  • 30ml Sunflower Oil
  • Red Onion (one should be sufficient - meant to be white, but we ordered Morrisons' Wonky Onions, and that's basically pot luck)
  • Ginger (for convenience, I used ready-chopped, frozen ginger - about 1 teaspoon)
  • Garlic (2 cloves, crushed)
  • Mild Curry Powder (1 tablespoon)
  • Plain Flour (2 tablespoons)
  • Kombu Dashi stock (made earlier, using ingredients above!)
  • Light Soy Sauce (2-3 tablespoons)
  • Honey (1 tablespoon)
  • Rice Vinegar (1 tablespoon)
  • Garam Masala (2 tablespoons)
Preparation Time: About 30 minutes

Crispy Tofu
  • Tofu (I used Cauldron's - a 396g pack)
  • Egg (ended up using 2)
  • Plain Flour (about 100g will be more than sufficient)
  • Panko Breadcrumbs (about 75g will be more than sufficient)
  • Salt & Pepper (a pinch of each)
  • Sunflower oil (sufficient to fill a frying pan to a depth of a little over 1cm)
Preparation Time: About 10-15 minutes, once the tofu is drained

Rice (for convenience, I used a 250g pack of Morrisons long grain rice, microwaved)
Spring Onions (to garnish)

Tools Required:
  • Sharp Knife
  • Garlic Press
  • Grater (if using fresh stem ginger)
  • Chopping Board
  • Frying Pan
  • Saucepan
  • Measuring Jug
  • Funnel
  • Coffee Filter
  • Receptacles for all the ingredients
  • Stirring Implements (several required!)
  • Heavy Book (to aid the draining of the tofu)
  • Kitchen Roll (also to aid the draining of the tofu) 
  • Tongs (to get the tofu into/out of the frying pan)
The Process:
First and foremost, the Kombu Dashi must be prepared. Cut a section of the kelp, about 10cm², and wipe off any salt residue with a damp cloth. Pour about 500ml of water into a saucepan, immerse the kelp and heat on a low setting on the hob - the idea is to get the water hot, but not let it boil... you're essentially brewing a weird, kelp-based tea - and simmer for about 25 minutes. Scoop off the froth that will start to build up every so often. After about 25 minutes, you should have a yellowish liquid, which you then need to filter into a jug for the time being. The easiest was is to stuff a coffee filter into a funnel and pour the liquid through. Set this aside to drain while you proceed with the other steps.

Next, the tofu will also need to be drained - it's generally packaged with a lot of water and absorbs quite a bit, but will need to be reasonably dry for this. Take the tofu out of the packaging and set it on a plate covered with some kitchen roll or a dishcloth. Cover the tofu itself with more of the same, then put something heavy on top (with some kind of non-absorbant barrier if you're using a book like I did - I used a small chopping board under a copy of How to Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman). Leave this to squeeze the water out of the tofu, and move onto the sauce.

Start by dicing the onion, crushing the garlic and, if using a chunk of ginger, chop or grate about a teaspoon's worth. Add 30ml of sunflower oil to a saucepan and heat over a medium setting on the hob. Add the onion, ginger and garlic to the saucepan and cook for 2-3 minutes, by which time the onion should start to become tender. Add the curry powder and stir thoroughly, allowing it to cook for about another minute - a wave of curry scent will let you know it's ready. Slowly add the flour, stirring constantly to blend it into the mixture, but try to avoid letting it cake on the sides of the saucepan.

Next come the first of the liquid ingredients: slowly add the Kombu Dashi, mixing in the soy sauce and honey as you go. Allow to simmer so the sauce thickens, stirring occasionally to avoid a skin developing on the top. Finally, add the rice vinegar and garam masala and cook for about another minute. This now needs to be set aside - but kept warm - until the tofu is sorted. The aroma will start to whet your appetite, so it's best to move quickly from here on...

By this point, the tofu should have had most of the water squeezed out of it, so slice the block into strips about 1cm thick. Sprinkle or grind over a little salt, and leave them aside for about 10 minutes, on a sheet or two of kitchen roll. During this time, start preparations for the Panko crumb coating.

You'll need two plates and two shallow bowls. Pour the flour onto the plate and mix in a little salt and pepper for seasoning. Break an egg or two into the first bowl and beat it - adding a little salt here, if you wish. Into the last bowl pour the panko crumbs. Take each slice of tofu and first coat it in the flour. Next coat it in the beaten egg as evenly as possible, then quickly transfer it to the panko crumb bowl and try to ensure it's thoroughly coated. Put the coated strips onto the second plate, then fire up the hob with a frying pan filled to a level of about 1-1.5cm with oil. Once it's hot, transfer in as many of the crumb-coated tofu strips as you're comfortable frying at any one time (I managed three, though my frying pan could probably accommodate a couple more!). Fry each batch until they're nice and golden (depending on the temperature, it'll be about 1-2 minutes), then transfer out and allow to rest on some kitchen roll to dry out a little.

Stick the rice into the microwave and cook according to the pack's instructions - you'd generally be looking at 2 minutes but, obviously, if you prefer to cook your rice the traditional way, you'll need to start that a little earlier in the process, in another saucepan, and have it set aside for this step. Add half the rice to each of a couple of bowls, top with the fried tofu strips and pour over the sauce. If you're feeling fancy, you could add some sort of topping, like spring onion or grated carrot. Serve up, and scoff down.

The Results:
This was probably one of the more involved processes I've tried, but still reasonably easy to break down into stages so I didn't have to split my focus between two tasks. Having to make the Kombu Dashi stock was quite frustrating, and I'm not convinced that worked properly - the photos I saw online showed a clear, yellowish liquid but, even after filtering, mine was quite cloudy. Additionally, the packaging recommended steeping the kelp for 6-8 hours before heating it. Since neither Courtney nor I had seen or anticipated this instruction, we ended up using a 'plan b' method which took only half an hour... It's entirely possible this method wasn't as effective, so I may try to make another batch of the stock by the recommended method at some point.

Everything else is pretty straightforward - the sauce is really easy to make, though it does use quite a lot of different ingredients that have to be added at specific points. Personally, I'm always wary of adding any powdery ingredients into a pan containing very little in the way of liquid ingredients, since it tends to just stick to the sides of the pan and become really difficult to wash up afterward, but this one worked out OK. Once the sauce had thickened up, the rest of the recipe was quick enough that I was able to take the sauce off the heat entirely until just before serving up. It stayed warm, and needed only a little stirring now and then to prevent a skin forming. Admittedly, I put it back on the hob briefly just before serving, but only to ensure it was piping hot rather than just warm.

I'm still not used to working with tofu, and I'm not convinced I drained it sufficiently... but it's a difficult judgement call: it has to be able to pick up the flour, but it shouldn't immediately soak through the flour. The egg part was very frustrating, because it should apparently only need one large egg... but I ended up beating a second because, with nine strips of tofu to crumb-coat, I'd run out of egg by the sixth or seventh, even though some of the strips weren't as thoroughly coated as I'd have liked. The egg didn't bind very well with the flour-coated tofu, but ended up getting my fingers very sticky. Consequently, I ended up with more panko breadcrumb on my fingers than on the tofu strips... or so it felt. As it happened, I think they were all sufficiently coated. Frying them was nice and easy, though I ran out of sunflower oil and had to supplement it with some Crisp'n'Dry... which, upon reflection, would probably have been the better oil to start with, as we'd just got a new bottle that morning. Since I'm also not used to shallow frying, there was quite a range of shades in the finished crispy tofu strips - from slightly anaemic through to "Oh, shit! I'd better get that out of the frying pan now, or it's gonna burn!" - as the last batch seemed to need less cooking time than the previous batches.

Now, clearly I'm quite fussy about my katsu curry... While I certainly enjoyed this - particularly the delayed kick of spiciness in the sauce - I'm not entirely convinced it was actually katsu. Maybe it was the use of red onion rather than white, maybe I needed to add a bit of additional seasoning to the sauce (I was quite conscious of the salt being added to various things already!). Not to say it wasn't nice - I really liked it... but something about it wasn't quite according to what I think of as 'katsu curry' flavour. I think the quanity was just about as perfect as it could be for two people - enough to cover the tofu strips and rice without utterly swamping it. What was interesting - both to me and to Courtney - was that there's nothing especially unusual or unique about the curry itself: it uses a standard mild curry powder and garam masala. Perhaps using both is a little odd, but even the use of honey in something that's meant to be savoury isn't without precedent.

What I don't enjoy is wastage... and if wasting most of the second egg used for the crumb coating wasn't bad enough, the original recipe specified 125g of plain flour and 100g of breadcrumb. Frankly, I think one could easily get away with half that considering how much was left over - which is why I've reduced the quantities above and noted that they'd be "more than sufficient". I'm guessing the original quantities were given more to ensure sufficient volume of flour/crumb to roll the tofu around in rather than as any indication of actual usage within the recipe. One of the reasons I'm not used to shallow frying is that I really hate working with that much cooking oil. We've taken to filtering and recycling ours but, obviously, it has a limited lifespan (unless you want to turn it into biofuel for a car). Additionally, putting this together also piled up an awful lot of washing up even before the food was served up and eaten.

Still, if you can put up with that, it's actually quite a fun recipe and I'm definitely going to try this again sometime, perhaps ensuring I use white onion and truly fresh ginger, maybe adding some salt to the curry sauce... Certainly trying to do better with the crispy tofu.

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